Six decades ago, this would have been one of the matches of the season. The Blackpool side of Matthews, Mortenson and Perry against the Newcastle United of Jackie Milburn was two clubs in their pomp. Two clubs which, to paraphrase one Harold MacMillan, would never have it so good again. Skip forward six decades, and they find themselves in the same division for the first time since 1970/71, but with broadly different expectations for the new season. Blackpool were relegated from the Second Division in 1978, and it took them almost thirty years to get back into the top two divisions of English football. In the two years since they have been back, they have flirted with relegation before managing to haul themselves clear of the drop on both occasions. They started this season, however, again amongst the favourites to be relegated from the Championship.
Newcastle United, meanwhile, have been quietly getting on with the job of trying to ensure that their stay in the Championship is a brief one. After a draw at West Bromwich Albion on the opening day of the season, they have won five matches in a row. Chaos continues to reign behind the scenes at St James Park and any take-over of the club seems as far away as ever, but caretaker-manager Chris Hughton deserves considerable credit for dragging his team to the top of the table, even if his team hasn’t necessarily been playing outstanding football on the way. The absolute worst thing that could have happened to Newcastle United would have been a bad (or even only a moderate) start to the season. The team has been grinding out results and seems likely to get involved in a three-way battle for the two automatic promotion places with last season’s other relegated clubs, Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion.
Bloomfield Road, Blackpool’s home, remains a work in progress. It might be a Champions League night, but it’s full to capacity tonight. Newcastle’s team remains stuffed with names that should still be playing in the Premier League. Alan Smith, Nicky Butt, Steve Harper and Joey Barton are just some of the names that might be wondering how it has all come to this. Blackpool, however, aren’t merely here to make up the numbers and they start the stronger of the two sides, an extra twenty-four hour break since their last match possibly making something of a difference. Brett Ormerod has a shot blocked by Harper and Hameur Bouazza puts the rebound in, only for it to be disallowed for offside, and David Vaughan shoots straight at Harper when he should really score. There are other half chances for Blackpool, but Newcastle are hanging on.
Five minutes from half-time, though, Newcastle take the lead. Danny Guthrie crosses and Andrew Carroll heads in. It’s a lead that they scantly deserve, having been outplayed for much of the first half, but the fact that they can absorb this much pressure and hit on the counter attack. This may prove to be a handy attribute throughout the remainder of the season, but what follows is not in the script – at least, it’s not in Newcastle’s version of the script. Blackpool pour forward more or less straight from the kick off, and in injury time they grab an equalizer when Charlie Adam’s shot is blocked by Harper but Brett Ormerod taps in from close range. Half-time, honours even, and Blackpool have been the better of the two teams.
Twenty minutes into the second half, Blackpool take the lead. If Newcastle are still stuffed with “Premier League talent”, they fail to demonstrate this when Hameur Bouazza swings over a corner, Keith Southern’s shot is blocked and Newcastle fail to clear, allowing Jason Euell to score from close range. The goal finally shakes some life into the visitors, who finally break out of their torpor in the hunt for an equalizer. Geremi, Barton and Nolan all have chances to bring them level, but Blackpool hold out and, at the final whistle, deserve their three points. Newcastle, meanwhile, head back to the drawing board and a home match against Plymouth Argyle on Saturday.
We will find out a lot about Newcastle United’s players over the next few weeks. Blackpool have blown a hole in the air of invincibility that was starting to build around them, and the difference between the Premier League and the Championship will start to become more and more apparent as the matches continue to come thick and fast. Newcastle will also remain the Championship’s biggest scalp this season, and it is likely that teams will – as Blackpool did this evening – raise their game against them. The issue of the fragility of their confidence is also likely to be significant. We may end up learning more about Newcastle United’s team this season from their players’ reaction to this result than we will learn from the match itself. The club may continue to tear itself apart off the pitch and Hughton, for all that he has done over the last few weeks, still doesn’t seem to have completely earned the trust of their supporters. Their accession back into the Premier League is far from cut and dried just yet.